Republicans believe that Democrats, who have used reports of Iraqi prisoner abuse as an avenue to attack President Bush on the war, might be overplaying their hand — especially in light of the videotaped slaughter of an American businessman by al Qaeda terrorists.
Sen. John Kerry, the presumptive Democratic nominee for president, and his surrogates have tried in vain for weeks to undercut public support of Mr. Bush’s leadership in the war on terror.
The political pain also has been inflicted by Senate Republicans such as John W. Warner of Virginia and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who have publicized their revulsion at the photos and criticized the Bush administration.
Yesterday, at a campaign stop in Arkansas, Mr. Kerry was sharper in his criticism of the war effort than he has ever been, boasting that “when Bill Clinton left office not one young American in uniform was dying in a war anywhere in this world.”
Earlier this week, Mr. Kerry said the abuses in the Iraqi prison, in which a few soldiers have been implicated, reaches higher than “you know, privates and corporals or sergeants” and all the way to the White House.
“This is something that comes out of an attitude about the rights of prisoners of war,” Mr. Kerry said. “It’s an attitude that comes out of how we went there in the first place, an attitude that comes out of America’s overall arrogance as policy.”
Terry Holt, spokesman for the Bush-Cheney campaign, said using setbacks in the war effort to lob political attacks will fail because voters will see it as an attack on the U.S. military.
“To blame the prison abuse on the president and the military as a whole is to blame all Americans for the actions of a few,” Mr. Holt said. “It’s really striking to see how easily Kerry can manipulate serious news into campaign fodder.”
One Republican strategist close to the campaign said the taped beheading of Philadelphia businessman Nicholas Berg will make it harder for Democrats to score political points with the prison abuse scandal.
“The public isn’t going to buy these attacks,” the strategist said. “Even though there was widespread revulsion to the prison abuse, the moment they see this barbaric decapitation, they say, ‘Yep, that’s why we’re there. This is what we’re up against,’ and the attacks lose their punch.”
Mark Racicot, chairman of Mr. Bush’s re-election committee, said Wednesday that such statements by Mr. Kerry show that “there is an essence to his character and his capacity as a leader that is defective and is prone toward political opportunism because more than anything, there is this almost insatiable desire to achieve higher office at the expense of focusing upon the best interests of this nation.”
House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, Texas Republican, also was quick to jump to the defense of Mr. Bush, chiding Mr. Kerry for “reliving the Clinton presidency” with his comments in Arkansas.
Mr. DeLay noted that “under the policies in the 1990s, we suffered six dead at the World Trade Center bombing, 19 dead of the Khobar Towers, 224 dead in the Africa embassy bombings, 17 sailors dead on the USS Cole, and within months, 3,000 dead on 9/11.”
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat, hammered Mr. Bush on the prison abuse scandal, saying it represents “a disaster policy by the administration in terms of leadership, in terms of control, in terms of command.”
“We have gone from the most respected country in the world in terms of human rights; we’ve lost that position,” said Mr. Kennedy, Mr. Kerry’s most prestigious campaign surrogate. “We are the most hated nation in the world as a result of this disastrous policy in the prisons.”
Democratic political consultant Donna Brazile, who ran Al Gore’s presidential campaign in 2000, said Mr. Kerry is only telling the truth when he says the Bush administration is “destroying our country’s reputation as a moral force in this world.”
“The Bush campaign is in very dangerous territory now,” Miss Brazile said. “The American people are realizing that this administration invaded a country without a plan on how to stabilize it and get out.”
The Republican complaints about political attacks linked to the war, Miss Brazile said, is typical of an administration “that will not take responsibility for anything.”